Vladimir Putin: The Troublemaker

16 minute read

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been a night owl, holding meetings into the early hours of the morning. He’s also the proprietor of several Twitter accounts. So it’s possible that early Moscow time on Jan. 4, 2017, he saw the following tweet from President-elect Donald Trump pop up on his screen, complaining about an apparent delay in the release of the U.S. intelligence report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

At that moment, as it happens, the final highly classified report sat, printed and ready, in the office of the principal intelligence analyst overseeing the investigation. And neither Putin nor Trump was going to like the conclusion. The document represented the consensus opinion of the heads of the U.S. intelligence community, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security that Putin had engaged in a broad, intentional influence operation against the November vote, according to several senior intelligence and Administration officials.

The evidence contained in the report was so highly classified that not even the analyst’s assistant would be allowed to package it for hand delivery across the river to President Barack Obama at the White House the following day. Three separate versions were to be distributed over the coming days: one top-secret, highly restricted version that included signals intelligence and other sources and methods; a less classified document for Congress and agency officials; and a third, declassified version for release to the public. And once those findings became public, say the senior intelligence and Administration officials, a whole new round of political recriminations would ensue.

In fact, the slowdown in the report’s release was the result of the White House trying to manage the inevitable fallout. Obama was scheduled for a meeting with Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill the next day. His staff suggested to the intelligence community that subjecting the President to questions from Democrats about whether the Russians swayed the election and why it had taken Obama so long to counter the cyberattack would fuel partisanship around the issue, according to several Administration officials familiar with the request.

It is already clear that the hack of the 2016 presidential election may have been one of the great espionage capers in memory. By breaking into, and then releasing at key moments in the campaign, emails from the Democratic National Committee, Russia caught the U.S. political and national-security world flat-footed, deploying a new asymmetric weapon against an old enemy. Putin’s plot flummoxed the Obama Administration in its final months as it struggled to learn how to fight influence operations in cyberspace. While there is no evidence that votes were altered, the steady stream of embarrassing revelations from the emails put Hillary Clinton into a defensive crouch. And, in a razor-thin election, there are many Americans who believe, with some justification, that Putin helped Trump win.

What makes it even better for Putin is the election meddling caps an extraordinary two-year string of military and diplomatic victories that leaves him in a strong position as the new President enters office. In Eastern Europe, Putin turned a losing hand in Ukraine into a territorial grab of Crimea. He has helped fund the rise of nationalist parties in Western Europe and benefited from the resulting weakening of the European Union. In the Middle East, he has deployed his forces to Syria to save a beleaguered Cold War ally and emerged with newfound influence throughout the region.

For all that, Russia remains a troubled country. With a thinly stretched military, anemic economy and fewer and fewer friends, Putin’s urgent task is to figure out how to play his lucky streak into more lasting benefits. Which makes the coming debate about the election hacking even more complicated: Putin may have found in Trump a President-elect willing to overlook behavior America has long opposed in favor of a new partnership. But Putin cannot yet be sure. On one hand, Trump often talks a softer line on Moscow. On the other, he has hard-line stances on the Middle East and nuclear weapons that could threaten Russia’s interests. “All we have are some vague sentiments that Trump has expressed during the political campaign and since the election,” says Thomas Graham, a top Russia adviser to Republican Presidents who has been mentioned as a possible ambassador to Moscow, “but you’ve got to translate that into concrete policy.”

One of Washington’s worst-kept secrets last fall was that the Obama Administration was struggling, with good reason, over how to respond to Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. Russia seemed most interested in sowing discord and confusion. If Obama weighed in with accusations and penalties in the heat of the campaign, he would run the risk of adding to the chaos. On the other hand, leaving the interference unchallenged seemed tantamount to acquiescence–more important, it ran the risk of letting it affect the outcome.

Obama himself was most worried that Putin might disrupt the actual vote, as he has been accused of doing in other countries, by meddling with the tally or making it harder to cast ballots. In September, Obama asked Mike Rogers, who runs the NSA, to make sure the U.S. knew about and stopped any effort at disruption. But the NSA found little evidence Putin could actually affect the counting of the vote. “We knew they were probing state and local election systems,” says one senior Administration official. “But our experts couldn’t figure out how they would use what they were doing to screw with the election, because the voting systems in the country are so decentralized.”

Some White House and intelligence officials now say the NSA’s actions, combined with personal warnings from Obama and others, forestalled this avenue of attack. In fact, in retrospect, it appears Putin was focused more on psychological operations. The most visible aspect of the operation was the theft and publication of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and from the Democratic National and Congressional Campaign committees. Released through WikiLeaks and other websites that investigators concluded have links to Russian agents of military intelligence, some emails proved not just damaging to Clinton but disruptive to her campaign. From late July through Election Day, when the leaks abruptly stopped, Clinton faced a constant barrage of new, often inconsequential revelations that competed with her campaign agenda. Some drove away potential supporters. As she accepted her party’s nomination in late July, Democratic backers of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, shouted “Liar!” while others held a banner reading WikiLeaks.

One enduring mystery of Putin’s influence operation is what other methods the Russian intelligence services deployed. Senior intelligence and White House officials believe the Russians also disseminated fake news stories through automated spam programs and social-media “troll farms” to spread disinformation during the campaign. In recent years, Russia has been accused of using these methods to undermine elections and advance its political agendas in Eastern and Western Europe. America’s fragmented media landscape may have allowed Putin to “amplify people’s existing political dispositions and feed conspiracy theorists,” allowing Putin’s “ability to influence people to increase dramatically,” says the senior Administration official.

Putin plays this game with some natural advantages. Cyberattacks are designed, by nature, to be secret and hard to trace. For that reason, even after the unclassified report is released, skeptics–including defenders of WikiLeaks, Trump and Russia–will be able to cast doubt on its conclusions. In addition, Putin is an autocrat who spent most of his early career in the KGB. That means he can deploy all his government’s espionage tools in unison, taking a “whole of government” approach to influence operations, says Bob Anderson, who headed the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch until January 2016. “What he does better than every other leader is he leverages all of his assets,” says Anderson.

Which helps explain why, even now, the U.S. government doesn’t know exactly how far inside the Russian government the hacking operation went. Tracing the network of fake-news sites and troll farms to figure out if they were in concert with Putin’s operation back to Russia is an effort that is only getting under way. Admits a senior Administration official: “We have not as a government yet exhaustively mapped out the wiring diagram of the Russian cyberinfrastructure designed to conduct hacking or propaganda operations against the West.”

But uncovering the links wouldn’t necessarily make Putin’s operation easier to fight. By September, the intelligence community had produced a list of “a few dozen” Russian entities involved in clandestine cyberoperations so that sanctions experts at the State Department could begin working out how to penalize Russia if the President wanted to take action. Over time, the U.S. government narrowed the list to three entities the intelligence community had concluded were “indisputably” linked to Russian military intelligence (GRU), which the U.S. spies believed was the main organization behind the influence operation.

In late December the U.S. publicly identified the three companies. The largest–STLC, Ltd. Special Technology Center–is an independent company based in St. Petersburg that has been identified in Russian state-backed news outlets as working directly for the intelligence services of Russia. The U.S. said STLC had provided signals intelligence and operational assistance to the GRU. The second was a small technical firm called Zorsecurity that the U.S. believed provided research and development to the GRU. The last was another small firm called ANO PO KSI, which the U.S. had concluded provided training to the GRU.

But holding Russia publicly accountable in a way that wouldn’t help Putin was hard. First off, it took the intelligence community weeks to figure out how to phrase a public accusation in a way that wouldn’t expose its own secret methods for tracking the hacking operation back to Moscow. “They needed to figure out how they could describe things without revealing sources and methods,” says the senior Administration official.

And then there was the question of whether identifying the bad guys would do the Russians’ dirty work for them. The FBI had already been accused of siding with Trump over Clinton by investigating her use of a private email server. If one of Putin’s goals was to make the entire American democratic process look corrupt, rigged and untrustworthy, calling out a foreign meddling operation that was benefiting Trump with only four weeks to go before the vote wasn’t going to decrease accusations of politicization.

Obama’s top national-security advisers held several meetings to grapple with these issues, the final two on Oct. 3 and Oct. 5. At first, no one objected to publicly naming Russia as long as the spooks were comfortable with the language. But at the second meeting, FBI Director Jim Comey appeared to hesitate. He said he wasn’t sure the statement was the right thing to do, and worried it would look as if the Administration was putting its thumb on the scale of the election. (A senior Administration official calls it ironic that Comey would express concern about politicizing investigations just three weeks before his bombshell letter to Congress that he was reopening the Clinton email investigation.) But in the end, Comey didn’t object strongly enough to prevent the identification of Russia on Oct. 7.

As for actually punishing Russia for its behavior, that was fraught too. “There was general agreement with the President’s calculation that our taking action three or four weeks before the election, beyond attribution, would turn this into a massive political thing,” says the senior Administration official. And even if he had wanted to, Obama didn’t have the power. A year earlier Obama had issued an Executive Order allowing him to respond to cyberattacks on things like banks and electrical systems, but it had no provision for attacks against an election or using cyber means to influence one. It would take weeks to draft the language necessary to amend the order. Democrats remain furious at Obama for the slow response; some say it cost their party the election.

By this time, the analysts tracking the Russian operation for the CIA had concluded Putin wasn’t just trying to give Western democracy a black eye, say senior intelligence and Administration officials, he was also trying to help Trump win White House. Russian operatives had penetrated the Republican National Committee and other Republican sites, and the intelligence community concluded Moscow had damaging emails on Republicans, say Administration and intelligence officials. But the only leaks that came out were damaging to Democrats. The only Republican whose hacked emails were released was Colin Powell, and they said unflattering things about Clinton. RNC officials dispute they were hacked.

Six weeks after Trump’s victory, Obama’s principals finally approved punitive measures against Putin. Announced on Dec. 29, they were the toughest response the U.S. had ever taken to a cyberevent. Obama targeted both the FSB and the GRU, and named four top officials in the GRU and their three allied companies. Obama also shut down two Russian recreational facilities that were suspiciously close to U.S. government facilities in Washington and New York and believed to be carrying out intelligence operations. And he expelled 35 Russian intelligence officers operating under cover in the U.S. In a background call with reporters Dec. 29, a senior White House official wryly said, in an apparent nod to Russian eavesdropping, “And for the Russian speakers among you, I will wish you s novym godom (Happy New Year).”

Many critics found the sanctions mild. And if the U.S. was expecting a Russian backlash, Putin had a surprise in store. There is an established choreography for the exposure and penalization of espionage operations, which Putin, as a former KGB field agent and director of the FSB, the agency that succeeded the KGB, has as a kind of muscle memory at this point. Penalties are responded to in kind, while an equivalent number of spies are expelled. And at first it looked as if that was the route Moscow would take too. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Russian national television that he had recommended expelling 35 alleged U.S. spies and closing a Western school and warehouse in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov declared, “There is no alternative here to the principle of reciprocity.”

Apparently there was. The day after Obama’s announcement, Putin said, “While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we’re not going to downgrade ourselves” to petty spats. “In our future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia–United States relations, we will proceed from the policy pursued by the [new] Administration,” he said. It was a bold maneuver, based on a hope that in Trump, Putin would find a different kind of American leader.

Will he? On paper, Putin looks to be having a strong run. He took the Crimea by force in 2014 and laid a claim to eastern Ukraine. His surprise intervention in Syria not only propped up his weak ally Bashir Assad, it also awed the Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and made the U.S. appear to be a second-class power in the region. National-security officials expect him to try his cybermeddling in elections this year in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Despite Putin’s recent success, Russia remains vulnerable. The country has been in a recession for two years, and its recovery looks to be weak. The success Putin had in cutting oil production belies an economy that is still reliant on natural resources, which in turn makes it reliant on foreign markets in Europe, where sanctions still bite. And the military successes are less than they appear. The Ukrainian intervention snapped NATO out of its long-running existential crisis: the U.S., Germany and the U.K. have responded by deploying troops throughout the former Soviet bloc, further requiring Putin to step up his military readiness.

“If you’re Putin, the only way to get out is by finding friends someplace,” says Graham, the GOP Russia expert. Putin has tried China, but they keep beating him in business, either directly in deals where they have the advantage or in competition for trade in Central Asia. Putin has been looking for business in South Korea and Vietnam, but to little effect. What Putin really needs, Graham and others say, is the U.S. and Europe as a counterweight, strategically and commercially, to China. “Interest would dictate trying to defuse tensions,” he says, “But [Putin’s] actions and the concerns about subversive activities and the use of active measures has only exacerbated relations with these countries.”

Moreover, there’s reason to think the two men may not get along as well as one might expect. Putin’s history of perceived slights, Russia watchers say, combined with Trump’s easy promises and inconstancy, is not necessarily a good match. “They’re going to hate each other after the first two meetings,” says one former senior White House Russia expert.

That’s an opportunity for Trump if he moves on it. He might win concessions from Russia on Ukrainian independence from Moscow. He could push Putin to end the war in Syria in a way that ousts Assad and salvages some hope for stabilization there. And he might work to de-escalate tensions with NATO members and avoiding renewed nuclear competition. All of which would make Trump’s pre-Inauguration bluster look less rash.

But before Trump can even get there, his relationship with Putin will be tested by the report on the Russian election operation. After months criticizing the intelligence community for its assertion that Russia was behind the meddling, Trump hinted he was open to being convinced otherwise. “It will be interesting to see if those who get the most sensitive version of the report have their minds changed by it,” says one official familiar with it. Only one mind really matters, of course. The question is whether it is an open one.

–With reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com